But for the best shots, those money shots that can capture the imagination of the audience, you need the best lens that you can get. You need the fastest, sharpest, and also lightest lenses on the market. Unfortunately, however, more features also mean more money.
In this discussion, we’ll discuss the best lenses for birding that provide value for money.
Related Guide: Best Nikon Lens for Video (2023)
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR (Our pick)
- Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR
- Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
- Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
- Nikon NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S
1. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
The first thing you will notice when you pick up this lens is its weight. This is one of the lightest super telephoto lenses around. Sure, it’s not as fast as the NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR, but the NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6 is nearly 65% less pricey than the NIKKOR 500mm f/4. It’s also significantly cheaper than the Sigma 500mm f/4.
Remember that both the Sigma and the other Nikkor f/4 options will stop faster. This will make a difference when shooting in low-light situations, especially when shooting birds hiding in their natural habitat. You would think that one stop isn’t that big of a deal, but I beg to differ. One stop means whatever light you are capturing at f/4, you capture half of that at f/5.6. This can be the difference between a great shot and a flop.
It’s important to note that the NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6 can utilize a standard screw-in filter of 95mm. The NIKKOR 500mm f/4 can’t use a standard screw-in filter. It uses a 40.5 mm drop-in filter.
The NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6 is compatible with the Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-20E III and the Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II. These extend the lens’s focal length further by two and 1.7 times, respectively, with an associated drop in maximum aperture. A two-stop loss of maximum aperture means the f/5.6 lens becomes an f/11. This rules out autofocusing with most of the cameras that Nikon manufactures.
In that sense, if you buy the 500mm f/4 lens, you can fully use the Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-20E III’s magnification capacity, yet the maximum aperture drops to f/8. Good enough for high-end DSLRs like the D850, the D6, and the D500.
Nikon has been able to keep the weight of this monster of a lens down by using the Phase Fresnel element during construction. Along with these elements, the lens also has three extra-low dispersion elements. Together these elements ensure that the lens can withstand the effects of color fringing and chromatic aberrations. This helps improve the color accuracy of the images as well as their sharpness.
Along with these, the lens also features Nikon’s nano crystal coating and super integrated coating. These two coatings ensure that the lens can counter the effects of flares and ghosting. Especially when working in harsh lighting conditions, internal reflections, ghosting, and flares can affect the image quality. A fluorine coating has also been used to ensure that the lens’s front element is easy to clean.
The lens features weather sealing, which will be a lifesaver when bad weather is upon you and you’re unprepared for it.
Built-in VR offers four stops of image stabilization options. This ensures that you can get a steady handheld shot. There are three modes to the built-in VR option. The first mode is ‘Normal’ for assisting normal handheld shooting of everyday subjects. The ‘Sport’ mode is for shooting subjects that are moving very fast and for tracking purposes. The ‘Off’ mode is for when you’re shooting on a tripod and doesn’t need VR.
Nikon’s silent wave motor technology powers autofocusing. This technology is quiet and accurate. The lens also features a full-time manual focusing override, which usually works pretty well, except I have noticed a slight hesitation when the lens is set to A/M settings. There is, however, no hesitation when the lens is set to the M/A option. However, the lens is most likely to be used predominantly in autofocusing mode.
In terms of optical quality, the lens is very sharp, even wide open. At f/5.6, the lens produces stunning details and suits high-resolution cameras like the D850. Some softening can be noticed on the edges of the frame. The lens remains sharp at f/11, and lens diffraction only occurs after f/16.
One good thing about Nikon’s F-mount lenses is that they work with APS-C and full-frame cameras. They even work with mirrorless camera systems with the FTZ adapter, increasing their usability.
This is also our top pick as the best Nikon lens for shooting bird photography.
2. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR
If you think the 600mm f/4 is too long for you or the 500mm f/5.6 that I discussed above is slower than expected, then the next best option is the 500mm f/4E FL ED VR. Sure, you can opt for one of the 400mm primes, and if you have a crop camera like the D500, then even the 400mm is a fantastic option because of the effective focal length. However, for someone using a full-frame camera like the D850 or the D800E, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR is an excellent option.
In terms of construction, the lens includes 16 elements arranged in 12 groups. The two fluorite elements found in the construction are only used in Nikon’s high-end lenses for suppressing chromatic aberrations. This not only improves the quality of the images and their sharpness but also reduces the overall weight of the lens. It’s no wonder that this lens is about 800 grams lighter than its previous version – the AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F4G ED VR.
The 500mm f/4E FL ED VR is lighter than the AF-S NIKKOR 400mm F/2.8E FL ED VR by about 800 grams. However, the NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR is significantly lighter than this lens.
There are also two extra-low dispersion elements to ensure the lens can handle chromatic aberrations better, producing better colors and contrast.
The lens features a super-integrated coating and nano crystal coating. These two elements ensure that the lens can handle the effects of harsh lighting. Working in harsh lighting conditions, such as when the sun is lower on the horizon and reflecting on the lens, can produce ghosting, flares, and internal reflection. These coatings help suppress these effects.
Additionally, a fluorine coating is applied to the front element of the lens, ensuring that the lens is easy to clean if it has any smudges, fingerprints, or dirt on the front element.
The lens features Nikon’s vibration reduction technology, which gives up to four stops of image shake correction. This lens would have been impractical without image stabilization for as heavy and long as it is. The VR has three modes, standard with most professional, super telephoto lenses that Nikon makes. There is Normal mode, Sports mode, and Off or the tripod mode. We recommend using the Sports mode when shooting birds and wild animals, especially when tracking moving subjects.
Regarding performance, the 500mm f/4E FL ED VR doesn’t leave much room for complaint. This is a fast-performing lens with excellent autofocusing performance and superb image quality. The lens is very sharp wide open, with the center of the frame sharpness beating that at the mid-frame and the corners, as one would expect. Sharpness improves across the board when the lens is stopped down to f/5.6. From f/8 onwards, sharpness starts to drop. I won’t recommend stopping the lens any further than f/16 because of lens diffraction.
Distortions and chromatic aberrations are well suppressed, and I don’t think there is any issue with that at all in real-life situations.
3. Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
Nikon’s super telephoto 600mm lens with a fast maximum aperture of f/4 is an updated design that costs a considerable amount of money. To be fair, it offers a fantastic maximum aperture that you can utilize for shooting bird photography, wildlife in general, and sports photography. There are two major benefits apart from the optical sharpness of the lens that we are going to learn about in further detail below, namely – the lens can capture a lot of light and decent background blur.
Though designed for the full-frame Nikon DSLR camera systems, the 600mm f/4 can also be paired with DX-format Nikon cameras like the D7200 and the D500. Unlike the older 600m f/4 G ED VR, which was impossible to pair with smaller and lighter DX-format cameras, this lens is much better balanced and works with most DX bodies. The advantage of using this lens on a crop body is that the effective focal length becomes 900mm.
This lens offers an angle of view of 4° 10′, giving a photographer a very tight view of the scene. You can create a tight composition of wild animals and birds, producing beautiful sharp images with a nice background blur. But this incredibly tight angle of view also has its issues, as we’ll cover in a bit.
This is one of Nikon’s best-constructed lenses. The lens is crafted out of magnesium alloy materials and contains two fluorite elements that ensure that it’s partially responsible for keeping the weight of the lens down.
The older 600m f/4 G ED VR was a 5-kilo behemoth that was simply impossible to use handheld. As someone who was a sports and wildlife photographer – two genres for which the lens was tailor-made – the lens could only be used on a tripod. The new FL ED VR version weighs just 3.81 kilos compared to that lens. Also, the fluorite elements inside the lens can effectively suppress the effects of chromatic aberrations.
The lens is weather resistant, so if you’re headed outdoors, you will find that there’s nothing to worry about.
Overall the lens has a total of 16 elements arranged in 12 groups, including four extra-low dispersion elements besides the fluorite elements. These elements also suppress the effects of chromatic aberrations. The lens ]features a nano crystal coating and a super integrated coating to ensure that the lens can handle harsh lighting conditions better.
The 600mm f/4 isn’t all good; this is a very difficult lens to compose with. Remember, this is a prime lens; therefore, the field of view you see cannot change. You cannot zoom out to spot your subject and then zoom in, keeping the subject in the middle of the frame. If you lose your subject while composing, it can sometimes be a nightmare. I would recommend that you use this lens with a tripod setup for convenience
Keeping the lens steady to get a sharp photo is also difficult. With the slightest movement the composition gets ruined and the image gets blurry. This is where the four stops of image stabilization come into effect. There are three modes to the built-in VR option. You get a Normal mode that works in most conditions, the Sports mode which is for tracking fast-moving subjects, and the Tripod mode, which switches off stabilization.
In terms of performance, the 600mm f/4E FL ED VR is sharper compared to the older 600m f/4 G ED VR.
4. Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
This is a budget option for someone just starting in bird photography and looking for a super telephoto lens that allows you to get a tight shot of your favorite subjects over great distances. This is one of the most inexpensive lenses in the business that offers telephoto reach.
Though the lens has been designed for the full-frame DSLR systems of Nikon, the lens also works with Nikon’s APS-C cameras, such as the D7200 and the D500. The lens’s effective focal length on an APS-C camera becomes 300-750mm, and if that isn’t enough, the lens is compatible with the Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E III. This teleconverter pushes the lens’s focal length by 40%, reducing the maximum aperture by one stop. That means with the 1.4x teleconverter, the 200-500mm f/5.6 becomes a 200-500mm f/8. Nikon’s high-end cameras, such as the D500, the D850, and several other cameras can autofocus with a lens with a maximum aperture of f/8.
In many ways, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is an answer to some of the competition lenses that were released in the absence of this lens. There was a gap in the Nikon lens line-up, and a budget super telephoto lens was in high demand. Then the 200-500m f/5.6 launched.
Weighing in at just 2.3 kilograms, the 200-500mm f/5.6 is great for handheld shooting. It’s not as lightweight as the incredible NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR discussed above, but it’s still fantastic (and almost 1/3rd of the price).
The construction of the lens includes 19 elements arranged in 12 groups. These include three extra-low dispersion elements that suppress the effects of color fringing and chromatic aberrations.
Additionally, the lens includes a super-integrated coating that ensures that the lens can handle internal reflection, flares, and ghosting.
In terms of build quality, the lens is made of a combination of hard plastic and rubberized material. However, there is one significant drawback to the lens that birding enthusiasts might be a little concerned about. This lens doesn’t have weather sealing. The lens did not perform poorly in searing 40 degrees (Celcius) heat and handled cold weather well during my tests. The only thing that I did not test the lens in was a torrential downpour, which I would suggest other users avoid as well. Dusty environments are likely also a no-go, as the lens may get sand particles in the crevices.
You can’t work handheld with a super telephoto lens if the lens does not have image stabilization. The 200-500mm f/5.6 comes with built-in vibration reduction (Nikon’s version of image stabilization), rated up to 4.5 stops. There are two image stabilization modes on the lens. The first is the ‘Normal’ mode for subjects not moving about erratically. The second, or ‘Sports’ mode, captures athletes and animals in motion. This mode is also suitable for panning.
Regarding image quality, the lens is at its best at 200mm. The center of the frame is very sharp, going on to become less sharp at the mid-frame and then average at the edges of the frame. Stopping down the lens improves both the middle and edges. Stopping down beyond f/11 reduces center sharpness significantly.
Sharpness performance repeats at all focal lengths until about 300mm. At 500mm, overall sharpness drops notably.
5. Nikon NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S
At just 1245 grams, this is one of the lightest super telephoto primes that the company has ever made. Designed exclusively for the Nikon mirrorless mount (the Z-mount), this is a fantastic 400mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/4.5.
The lens is compatible with the Nikon Z teleconverters – Nikon Z Teleconverter TC-2x and the Nikon Z Teleconverter TC-1.4x. The 1.4x teleconverter results in one stop of light loss, and the 2x teleconverter results in two stops of light loss.
The construction of the lens includes a total of 19 elements arranged in 13 groups. These include one extra-low dispersion element and two super-ED elements. There is also one short wave-length refractive element. These elements are designed to handle chromatic and comatic aberrations and color fringing. On top of that, the lens also features a nano crystal coating. The nano crystal coating helps the lens fight the effects of harsh lighting. Internal reflections, ghosting, and other issues are suppressed.
The lens has a fluorine coating on the front elements. This ensures it can be easily cleaned in case the lens gets dirty or has smudges. Additionally, the lens is a fully weather-sealed design. You can take this lens practically anywhere you may travel, and it will work flawlessly in any weather condition. I recommend using a filter with this lens to ensure it’s completely weather sealed.
You can use front screw-in filters with this lens. The filter thread specificcation is 95mm.
The lens features 5.5 stops of built-in image stabilization for a super telephoto lens that enhances the hand-holding capabilities of the lens. The lens also supports Syncro VR. The lens supports cameras that come with sensor-shift type IBIS.
While the lens, paired with a compatible camera body, offers up to 6 stops of image stabilization, it must be mentioned that Nikon hasn’t provided any controls on the body of the lens to switch this feature on or off. You must dig deep into the camera’s menu to do that. That said, however, there are a bunch of other customizable function buttons on the lens to work with.
Autofocusing is powered by Nikon’s stepping motor AF technology. This technology is fast, accurate and, unlike the SWM technology that Nikon uses in their F-mount lenses, is suited for both still and video work. The lens also features a full-time manual focusing override. You can grab the manual focusing ring anytime and adjust focusing without issues. The lens features an internal focusing mechanism meaning the front end does not move when the lens focuses.
Speaking of grabbing the manual focusing ring, I have one complaint: when you turn the ring, you won’t hit a hard stop that tells you if you’ve hit the infinity of the closest focusing distance. While inconvenient, I don’t think this will be too much of an issue. Autofocusing is pretty accurate and snappy, and as long as you’re using the lens in autofocusing mode, I don’t think there will be a reason for you to miss the hard stops on the manual focusing ring.
Speaking of the manual focusing ring, there is another configurable ring on the lens. You can program this ring to control either the lens’s aperture, exposure compensation, or ISO speed. Alternatively, you can set the ring to do nothing if you find the positioning of the ring inconvenient.
Overall, the lens is very sharp. The lens produces fantastic details even when shot at f/4.5 (wide open). Stopping down the lens improves the overall sharpness, and this continues up until f/16. Thereafter lens diffraction sets in, and no further improvement in sharpness is achieved.
I have noticed some vignetting that can be easily corrected in post-processing. There is only a slight bit of distortion, but then you will have to shoot brick walls to even notice that they’re there. I don’t think this will be too much of an issue for someone shooting bird photography. Chromatic aberrations are present in small quantities and only when you’re shooting high-contrast scenes.